By Richie Unterberger

Even by the Incredible String Band's own standards, U was an eclectic enterprise. The outfit once described by their producer Joe Boyd (in a 1997 piece in The Guardian) as "the first world music group" had already been weaving folk, rock, blues, mysticism, and the sounds and instruments of several continents into a unique mosaic for four years and half a dozen albums before U appeared in 1970. U was not just more of the same; it was a lot more of the same, the double album filling up nearly two hours of music. The two-LP set boasted a pretty staggering diversity, from an Indian sitar-paced instrumental and whimsical psychedelic folk minstrelsy to American nineteenth century saloon raunch and tunes that skirted confessional singer-songwriting, old-time country-folk, barrelhouse blues, and straight-out rock'n'roll.

    The wide-ranging breadth (and length) of U was a direct consequence of the equally ambitious stage show in which the songs were featured. Described at the time (in Melody Maker) by Robin Williamson as a "surreal parable in song and dance," it was neither a pageant, a play, dance, theater, nor pantomime, though there were elements of all of those. The four core Incredible String musicians of the time -- Williamson, Mike Heron, Rose Simpson, and Licorice McKechnie -- were augmented by Stone Monkey, who themselves were a hard-to-define performance group.

    "They'd been part of a group called Exploding Galaxy, originated by David Medalla," explains Williamson. "It was a street happening kind of thing -- kinetic art is how they used to talk about it." After meeting Malcolm LeMaistre of Stone Monkey in New York, the ISB and Stone Monkey worked up the production that became U in their cottages on an estate in Scotland.

    "I'd been pushing for a while to get a visual element into what we were already doing musically," Robin continues. "I liked the notion of everybody having a go, regardless of their particular abilities; using all people at their various levels. This was something that Medalla, Malcolm and the Stone Monkey had already imbibed, in the notion of street happenings, getting people to generally explode. These people were already doing Indian movement ideas, Indian street theater ideas, Japanese, Burmese, and Thai kind of puppet notions. For better or worse, we tried to flush all those things in there."

    "Each of our dances in U is based on part of the action," LeMaistre told Melody Maker at the time. "It's arranged inasmuch as that certain parts of the music, certain things have to happen. It's very much a dance thing rather than mime; in some sketches the music will provide the background and in others the dancing will. There's an equal amount of humor and power, and there's no central mood at all. Everything is evenly balanced and because the framework of the story is thin, there's plenty of opportunity for adding sketches as we feel like it. The whole thing contains over 20 songs and should run for over two and a half hours."

    The settings, painted and designed by Janet Shankman, were made into colored slides that would be projected from the front and rear. As for the story, says Williamson, "the vague notion was, a soul incarnates out of nowhere, lives, and then vanishes again at the other end. Hence the idea 'U,' manifesting into matter and then reascending back into the great finale. It was such a forgiving plot line. We liked to engage in all sorts of asides, which includes robots, call girls, space characters, a pirate or two, some highwaymen, and a number of other bits and pieces. The general intent was lighthearted. It wasn't quite pantomime, and it wasn't comedy or anything that formal, but it had some of those elements."

    The stage show of U ran for about ten days at the Roundhouse in London in April 1970, and then for about five days immediately afterward at the Fillmore East in New York. "The performances in Britain and America were rapturously received by the crowds, but absolutely panned by the press," recalls Williamson. "Most of the press just insisted on viewing the dance as not really being technical. It totally missed the point. It wasn't supposed to be technical. It [the press] said it had no structure; the whole idea was to allow it to occur. But we ran into dance critics who said the dance isn't dance, and the theater critics who said, this isn't theater. Of course, it wasn't either dance or theater. That wasn't what we were trying to do."

    U didn't last long as a stage production, since, as Williamson notes, "After we'd done the Fillmore East, we ran out of money. The String Band took the remains of the show, just with the four of us, to the West Coast and did a few more dates on the West and elsewhere, but without all the dancers." However, the musical portion of the endeavor would be preserved on the album U, which Williamson says for the most part was "pretty much the way we were doing it" on stage. One notable exception was the Williamson tune "Queen of Love," which wasn't in the show, and on record had a string arrangement by sometime Grateful Dead keyboardist Tom Constanten.

    "The whole album was recorded in 48 hours," reveals Williamson. "We just went day and night for two days and two nights, in shifts, and finished. I can't remember what the reasons were, but we had to be done in a hurry. In a way, it seemed to fit."

    While tunes like "The Juggler's Song," "Bridge Song," and "Puppet Song" were very much in keeping with the work the ISB had presented on their previous albums, others pushed the envelope to unpredictable extremes. Mike Heron's concluding "Rainbow Bridge" clocked in at over 15 minutes; Janet Shankman's contribution, "Bad Sadie Lee," was Western barroom Americana at its wobbliest; and there were several extended instrumental passages that could highlight sitar ("El Wool Suite"), searing electric guitar ("Partial Belated Overtime"), or other items from the group's large arsenal of moods and instruments. Of his own contributions, Williamson "particularly liked 'Astral Plane Theme,' a guitar thing with a kind of Japanese-style tuning. It was quite an spontaneous and improvised kind of piece, and the take on the record was quite nice. Also, 'Invocation' is a piece which I performed at Woodstock, which I still do from time to time, and which I still like. It's the only piece that wasn't done specially for the pantomime. It had been used for a month or two already before the show began, so we put that in there."

    As a double album of no set style that had been the musical setting of a stage production few had seen, U couldn't have been the easiest thing to promote. It seems to be the rarest of the Incredible String's Elektra albums, though as Williamson laughs, "A lot of our records were pretty well-kept secrets." With its reissue in the CD age, though, the intricate, involved, and enigmatic project that was U will at long last be a less closely guarded secret. -- Richie Unterberger

contents copyright Richie Unterberger , 2000-2010
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